Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999)

If this movie was not related to Star Wars I would never probably had even watched it. And that probably goes for everyone else too. The fourth installment in the Star Wars saga (but the first one on the actual timeline of the series), was met with cheers and applause from die-hard fans of the series on release. It took until much later for the rose-colored glasses to come off and see it as the film it actually is. The bland performances, the odd juxtaposition of Jar-Jar Binks with the main cast for comic relief, and Jake Lloyd. That didn’t matter though, it was the sixteen year return of possibly the most famous and most profitable franchise of all time. In other words, there was little to no way that it would not be loved by hard-core fans on release.

This Complete Saga marathon that I started two years ago, with the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) has made me realize that with every re-watch, Phantom Menace gets worse. I get more and more bored with the world that George Lucas creates and the story he tells in this picture. You can only take so much of the podracing scene before it becomes just ugly computer-generated effects and tonally more similar to the go-kart race in Little Rascals (1994) rather than anything resembling Star Wars. Or, the way that everyone in this movie acts so lifeless and monotone which isn’t necessarily their fault more of the workings of Lucas’ directing. In fact, the only character who even shows any sign of life in them is Jake Lloyd’s tiresome portrayal of young Anakin Skywalker. Lloyd’s performance was so notoriously disliked in fact, that he claimed that his role “ruined his childhood”.  Nonetheless, his performance is quite grating. Although, Lloyd’s delivery of lines such as “Now this is podracing!” and “My name is Anakin and I’m a person!” can only be so much his fault rather than Lucas’ poor dialogue. It just makes it a little hard to believe that the same person delivering all those lines is also the same individual that will slaughter innocent children. Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed Best) was included into the story to provide that comedic edge to the stories, the way that C-3PO was in the Original Trilogy. Except, 3PO was a sidekick to R2-D2 which is what made him work for comedic purposes. The bickering between the two characters helped keep the comedy from being too in-your-face. Both characters were also isolated in the background many times which helped separate the two tones of those films (A New Hope, Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi.) . Binks on the other hand, is not a sidekick, but just a lone bumbling idiot who shouts catchphrases and my have been planned to be a sith lord in subsequent films him doing all this while the on many times the main cast does not acknowledge him many times. Nonetheless, Lucas understood his mistake it seems and dialed back his character in Attack of the Clones (2002) and The Revenge of the Sith (2005).

For all of The Phantom Menace’s shortcomings, one of the things that at least makes watching this movie not entirely a dull experience is John William’s score. “Duel of the Fates” may just be my favorite song from any Star Wars movie. The lightsaber battles are also much better than the prequels thanks to the new special effects that are utilized. In the final battle, Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) battle Sith Lord Darth Maul (Ray Park) and it is a spectacular sequence that almost makes you forget about how long it took to lead up to that scene. Some of the character design in this movie (and all the prequels in fact) is pretty awesome. As a child, Darth Maul was my favorite character because of his imposing design and his double-bladed lightsaber. Before the prequels, there were no other Jedi introduced in the films other than, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), Yoda (Frank Oz), and Obi Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness). One of the positives of these movies were the introduction of new and interesting Jedi such as Ki-Adi-Mundi (Silas Carson) and Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson). There were many interesting set pieces and characters set up to be later explored in the subsequent movies, books, and video games.

When I was in elementary school, I loved Star Wars above anything else. Funny enough, The Phantom Menace was my favorite movie out of the five that I had seen (my parents didn’t allow me to watch Revenge of the Sith due to its PG-13 rating). I think it was because of that I wanted to become a Jedi like Anakin. Me being a child, felt like I could relate to his character. I was also fine with Jar Jar Binks and he never seemed to annoy me, but I never remember laughing at anything he did unironically. I also thought the overuse of CGI was pretty awesome and always kept me interested because it resembled video games so closely. All of these points leads me to believe that The Phantom Menace was made with mainly children in mind. The merchandising for this movie was insane and helped add to the grandiose marketing campaign that this movie had. For all it’s shortcomings, The Phantom Menace will always be remembered in cinematic history for the massive cultural event that it was, and the massive disappointment that followed it.

Note: This short 15 minute documentary explains the whole Phantom Menace phenomenon better than even my words can describe

Downsizing (2017)

My favorite thing about film festivals is that you are able to catch some movies before they get a wide release and try to get the word out to people to go and see them when they do eventually reach theaters. However, Downsizing is the complete antithesis of that statement.

The trailer gives you hope. Hope that something will be done with this interesting concept. Alexander Payne has directed and written some fine films, such as, Sideways (2004) and Election (1999) to name a couple. Movies that tell interesting stories with interesting characters on a much smaller, more personal scale (no pun intended). Downsizing is completely different in that way. I think the idea could work, as people shrinking themselves down to five inches to save the environment Unfortunately, it lacks any direction whatsoever, characters are uninteresting, and the movie is boring.

The lack of any likable characters makes this movie even harder to get through. I haven’t seen Christoph Waltz wasted this badly since Spectre (2016). Matt Damon can not do comedy at all as well. All the characters are wasted, but nothing really can compare to the character Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau). Chau plays a Vietnamese activist that sounds less like an actual person and more like Short Round from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984). The comedic complexity and questionable racism of the character is that she sounds funny, which is fine, for the first minute or so. Afterwards, when you realize she is a going to be a main character, she becomes obnoxious fast. The best characters are the cameos in the movie. Notably, Laura Dern, Neil Patrick Harris and James Van Der Beek to name a few.

Do you like product placement? Not in the David Fincher way where it adds to the realism. Just overt Adam Sandler-esque product placement? Because if so Downsizing is a great fit for you! Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) works at Omaha Steaks and LL Bean, people eat at Olive Garden, Fed-Ex is mentioned a couple times, there is a giant Nabisco Saltine Cracker that is used to show Paul Safranek how small he became. All of this stuff is shoved in our faces in the worst way possible. Giving it that feeling like the reason why this is Payne’s most expensive feature yet is because of all the product placement that had to be done to get that money.

It could be said that Downsizing is satirical, but in order for that to be true the filmmakers would need to look up the definition of satire. The basic theme of Downsizing is about saving the environment. (I think?) The reason why I am unsure about that is because the way this is conveyed is about as well as Birdemic: Shock and Terror (2010) tries to preach about environmental awareness.

Downsizing is like a Saturday Night Live skit that goes on for two hours mixed with a half-baked attempt at satire. It doesn’t know what it wants to satirize but, by golly it attempts to. Alexander Payne is a talented director and I still can not comprehend how he is attached to this horrible film. If you like the idea of Matt Damon being small with little else to offer, then this is the film for you. Everyone else should avoid this film at all costs.      

 

Blade Runner 2049

 ★★★½

This is easily the best looking movie of the year. Part of my enjoyment in writing this review is picking the shot from the film I wanted to use for my blog entry. All of them were contenders. At nearly three hours long, this is a sci-fi epic. I found Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 to be a flawed, yet interesting addition to the universe of Blade Runner.

2049 explains much more than its predecessor does. The original Blade Runner (1982) managed to be more of a mood piece than a full-fledged action movie and this film is the exact opposite. Which is not a bad thing but not necessarily fully a good thing either. Personally, I found the ambiguity of the original Blade Runner (the 2007 Final Cut, of course) to be one of its strongest qualities. Connecting to the film’s themes of morality and liberty as well a leaving the ending more up to the viewer’s interpretation to what will happen to Decker and Rachel.

Denis Villeneuve continues his streak of making at least one film a year. This being his fourth year in a row. It baffles me how he manages to do it. Considering that the quality of his films have not gone down and have all manged to be at least consistently good. This movie is the most ambitious and most expensive of all of his movies and Villenueve still manages to continue with his streak. The shots are full of color in this movie and are just terrific to look at. I love how much variety there is in this film especially. Every scene is staged to perfection. I don’t think a better director could have been chosen for this movie.

Hans Zimmer handled the score for the movie, and lacked the amount emotion that Vangelis’ score had. Zimmer’s score fell back on not reusing sounds rather than having a central tune to the film. It puzzles me why they didn’t just get Vangelis to score the movie again or they could have even gone for a more unknown musician than Zimmer. I found the music to be the most underwhelming part of the film, which was very disappointing considering how iconic the original’s is.

2049 is a movie that while I may consider it to be unnecessary, is good at what it does. While a bit long, and lacking in its score. The film manages to add to the world of Blade Runner which helps provide for a good sequel. That while I felt was disappointing, ended up being much better than I would have expected when it was announced a couple years back.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)

★★★★

Logan (2017) set the standard for superhero movies, at least for ones this year. But, does every movie have to be emotionally as powerful as that film was? Of course not! Marvel Studios is here more, to merely create fun entertainment in James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.

Watching the Guardians travel from sci-fi set piece to set piece was quite impressive. The detail to the areas showed the care put into them. Star Lord (Chris Pratt) and crew were pretty much all did good jobs with the script given. With the exception of Drax (Dave Bautista) which we will look into later.

In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the villain is always considered to be the weakest link. With the exception of Loki (Tom Hiddleston) every other villain seems disposable. In Guardians 2, Ego (Kurt Russell) felt much more memorable as the antagonist makes it stick out compared to other marvel movies. The disconnect from the rest of the Marvel Universe makes the movie stand out as well. Not everything has to be filled with cameos and references to other superheros, and Gunn understands that.

The soundtrack was very well selected, just like the first’s. A lot of surprising picks show up on the set list. It’s best to not look into the soundtrack before watching because it makes the movie all the better. An awesome title sequence begins the choreographed music-video battles in this new selection of hit 70s songs.

Marvel really needs to slow down when it comes to the jokes. Comedy should be present, but it does not need to be as frequent as it shows up? Drax is the embodiment of what I dislike about Marvel Studios movies. His purpose in the movie was to tell an unfunny joke then laugh obnoxiously the same way Seth Rogen does as a que for the audience to do the same. Most of the movie going public seems to feel differently about the inclusion of so much comedy in these films but, it does really seem to affect the more sad or intense scenes. (Guardians 2 did handle an emotional scene well however, unlike past Marvel movies so bravo James Gunn). From the classic “language” quote from Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) to “that’s the wi-fi password” from last year’s Doctor Strange (2016) people seem to have a favorite bad joke to make fun of in these films. This picture is no different, offering one of the worst yet with “Tazer Face”. The joke is unfunny at first but it continued getting referenced again and again and it just continued to make it less and less unfunny.

With the exception of the failed attempts at comedy. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is pretty great. James Gunn was also the sole writer for this film and it made the film feel much more even tonally, compared to other MCU films. This is a rare exception where the sequel is possibly even better than the original film. Thank you James Gunn, this was a great way to kick off the summer blockbuster season.